judaism

Netanya, Truly a Gift from Above

Netanya

My oldest daughter, Netanya, just celebrated her twelfth birthday, an enormous milestone in Jewish tradition. Sadly, I didn’t have an opportunity to speak at the birthday festivities, so I thought I’d tell the world what I think of her right here.

Unbreakable Bond

My Netanya and I have had an unbreakable bond since she was a small baby. When she just a wee little nothing, there was only one way to get her to sleep at night. I had a cozy little lazy boy in my Baltimore living room. Netanya would settle herself down right across my chest, and before I knew it, she was soundly asleep. More than half the time I would fall asleep right there with her.

And within a short period of time, this became my favorite part of the day. I waited all day long for that fantastic burst of relaxation. And I honestly still miss it all the time.

Netanya

Netanya is a Miracle

Netanya is a walking miracle. Doctors can sometimes be a bit hard to handle when bringing a little bundle of joy into this world. They don’t know everything, although they would certainly like you to think they do.

In fact, my Netanya story is probably the primary source for why child birth is one of the few areas in the world where I put faith a good chunk ahead of science. Throughout Netanya’s time in the womb, the doctors tormented us with tales of horror. She was going to be born with a whole host of problems. Inevitable problems that would follow her throughout the rest of her life.

And before I could blink, little Netanya Temima was born into this world. Her name was chosen for it’s esthetic value; however, it’s inadvertently laden with an abundance of meaning. The name means “God gave something perfect and unblemished.” The doctors predicted the worst. But they were oh so very wrong. The Netanya that came into my life twelve years ago was absolutely flawless, and she is the blessing of the century. I truly couldn’t imagine life without her.

The Bond Between Father and Daughter

The bond between father and eldest daughter is one that words will always fail to explain. It’s an uncanny allegiance, and an overwhelmingly powerful dedication. But one thing is for certain: People say they would die for others all the time. The words often feel meaningless. When a father is blessed with a daughter, the words take on a profoundly new and intense meaning. It’s like day one of the timeline begins when a father is just waiting to say the immortal words from Clueless, “If anything happens to my daughter, I’ve got a .45 and a shovel. I doubt anybody would miss you.”

And I would do anything–ANYTHING–for my Netanya.

So, who is this Netanya of mine? I would like to speak of three character traits that exemplify who my incredible daughter is.

1) Netanya and Next-Level Empathy

Netanya

Netanya doesn’t just have empathy. She has next-level empathy. I recall times when as a small child, she knew what I was thinking and feeling, better than anyone else. She has always wanted her Abba to be so happy, and like no one else around, she could tell when I was not.

Netanya, the eternal diplomat, wants everyone in her life to be happy all the time, and works tirelessly to try and make that happen. This can certainly take its toll on her, but she faces up to the challenge all the time.

And that’s why everyone around just can’t stop adoring her. Human and animal alike!

I remember a time when I was looking after a friend’s pet. Her dog and mine pretty much ignored each other for a week. And the other dog didn’t really have much of an interest in being best friends with the human folk of my household either. That’s why I couldn’t get over it when I found both dogs curled up asleep next to Netanya one night. Everyone and everything senses how her caring nature is unmatched. And who wouldn’t want to be around that!?

Netanya

2) Netanya and Insatiable Curiosity

My precious Netanya wants to learn and know so much. I had such a lovely conversation with her recently as I was trying to figure out things other people and I could get her for the big upcoming birthday. Her intense interests ranged from art to boxing.

I had the pleasure of being there when she opened up a gift from my wonderful new in-laws. They got Netanya a pair of pink boxing gloves. Her mouth went wide as can be and her eyes lit up like nobody’s business.

This young lady wants to learn everything and is dedicated to grabbing a hold of all the knowledge she can. Whether it’s reviewing words with me in first grade or battling her way through Spanish with Duolingo, when she wants to learn something, the dedication and passion are inspiring.

And look out world. She’s known since she was a wee nothing that she wants to be a doctor. I can’t wait to celebrate with her when she finishes (and aces) medical school!

Which leads nicely into number three…

3) Netanya and her Endless Potential

This little angel has no idea how great she is. No clue at all.

Meanwhile, the world is at her fingertips the moment she shoves her shoulders back, lifts her head up high, and realizes how truly amazing she is.

Smart, talented, and beautiful, my little angel has it all. She’s just the right kick in the tush away from achieving whatever she wants in this world.

***

Netanya

Netanya, we were close from the day you were born. We are super close now. And I am honored to watch as you get older and more amazing every day. I’m so happy I get to keep watching you grow.

You are a true blessing in my life. Thank you for being there for me. Thank you for being you.

***

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Posted by jaffeworld in judaism, parenting, personal story, 1 comment

From Nothing to Confusion: My Religious Odyssey

From Nothing To Confusion

It’s that time again. I worked really hard. I edited like a beast. Did everything I needed to do to make this happen, and now my latest book (#3) is ready for the masses. If you haven’t checked out Teach Like a Ninja and You’re Doing Everything Wrong, please have a look. From Nothing to Confusion is my latest attempt to make sense of all the crazy thoughts swimming around in my head. I hope you enjoy!

From Nothing to Confusion is about my religious journey. It’s about how I grew up, all the religious developments that occurred along the last forty years, and where I am holding now. Sometimes it’s painful. Other times it’s filled with joy. And the whole time it’s a thoughtful journey. And I want to welcome you along for the ride.

Here are some tastes of what you’ll find within:

From Nothing to Confusion: Born to Believe

“It’s always a curious thing, being born into a faith. It doesn’t make all that much sense, with just a bit of thought. You can’t be born into a belief system. Hell, you are born believing nothing.” -Intro

In the introduction to my book I talk about the quite confusing ways we attempt to educate our children to follow in our religious paths. It’s very odd (with admittedly no obvious better choice).

Logic would dictate that religious beliefs would be something people would choose rather than something they are told to believe. Yet, outside of people with stories like my own, this almost never happens. And much of my introduction laments the fact that facilitating an experience like mine is borderline impossible.

From Nothing to Confusion: Raising the Little Ones

“We do what we can. There is no right answer. Probably not even close. In the meantime, we try to model actions and behaviors we’d love to see in our children. Then we keep our fingers crossed, and sit back and watch as their lives and belief systems unfold before our eyes.” -Intro

Some of my children are struggling with Judaism. It’s not terribly surprising. There are many aspects I’m struggling with myself, and I’ve been doing this a heck of a lot longer.

But the best path in how to raise children to love what you love is a mystery to so many of us. And you can do everything “right” and get unfavorable results. You can always “luck out”. But ultimately we’re all trying to unlock this mysterious code. We’re trying to find out how to create the right balance of rules and freedom, of forced education and space for self-growth.

But no matter what we do, so much remains out of our control. And hope fills the void.

From Nothing to Confusion: The Need for More

“Feeling good about efforts that are accomplishing little to nothing was not my goal…. I wanted and needed something bigger.” -Ch. 6

In this chapter I speak about some of my experiences in college in which I was trying to grow past some of what I had experienced in high school. There are many out there who will shout out to children about how to be a responsible adult, who works hard to make the world a better place. But, sadly, they’re often teaching you how to create an appearance of doing good things… and how to pat yourself on the back for all that you’ve supposedly accomplished.

But once you recognize what’s happened, it’s hard not to see it in so much of what we do. It’s hard not to recognize that we’re not really making that much of a difference at all. And if we wish to leave the world a better place than the one we came to, this is unacceptable. And we are prompted to seek something bigger and better.

From Nothing to Confusion: Human Interaction

“No human being can be fully fulfilled without human interaction. Love is connected to touch. To say otherwise is naive at best. Manipulative and controlling at worst.” -Ch. 18

This chapter discusses an element about Orthodox Jewish culture that I think is taught with a definite agenda, and one that ultimately can and does hurt a lot of people.

Sexuality is taught in a way that gears people toward marrying, and marrying as soon as humanly possible. Every element is strategically designed to accomplish that goal. But teaching about healthy relationships and building a strong foundation based on confidence and self-respect are not part of the agenda. They don’t accomplish the goal, and many are left lacking severely vital components of a healthy adult personality.

I believe this is the single greatest flaw in the modern Jewish world. And whereas on paper it appears to be effective and effective immediately, the long term results are hurting people. Many people, myself included, are victims of a dangerous and backwards perspective. One that is prone to hurt people and is entirely unsustainable.

From Nothing to Confusion: When You Fall into Dark Places

“When things are falling apart all around you, it’s hard to trust in the system. It’s borderline impossible not to fall into a dark place and assume that a flaw exists.” -Ch. 20

From Nothing to Confusion takes you through many complicated parts of my story. I join the Reform Movement, start tinkering with Orthodox Judaism, move to Israel, get married, have lots of kids. Everything appears to go as planned. Everything looks great, like the system had another tremendous success story. The entire Jewish world can pat itself on the back for producing, yet again, another picture-perfect Jewish family.

But picture-perfect we were not. And despite decades of assumptions, despite years of trust and elated participation, I fell. I lost my balance. I was no longer what I once was.

I started from nowhere. I traversed my way across a system quite unfamiliar to me. I climbed mountains, and fell into a few swamps along the way. But I came out unscathed… until I was hurt, and hurt bad.

And it threw me into a dark space I have not yet fully crawled out from. And here I am: Confused.

I went from nothing to confusion. And I hope you join me in learning about how it all happened.

***

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Posted by jaffeworld in book announcement, judaism, personal story, religion, 0 comments

Healthy Religiosity, Israel vs. the World

religiosity

I’ve noticed a bit of a trend lately. Folk who come to live in Israel, and slowly but surely their religiosity starts to dip.

The Religiosity Counterintuitive

On the surface, this is quite counterintuitive. There are so many reasons why one would think this could never happen. First and foremost, we’re in the Holy Land. On every corner there’s a synagogue. Everywhere you look there are religious people, objects, and opportunities. And the land itself is covered from top to bottom with history and significance. So how could it be that in an environment such as this, one could possibly lessen their enthusiasm, observance, or religiosity?

I’d like to suggest five possible reasons:

1) The Israel Challenge

Israel is generally a challenging place to live.

If you are elsewhere, and you live in a beautiful, large home, your high-power job pays a fantastic salary, and you are surrounded by endless activities, life in general can be much easier.

But who has time to think about going to classes and services when they’re not sure how they could possibly cover their rent or where their next meal is coming from?

On a philosophical level, it’s easy to say that one’s connection to God and religiosity should never parallel how great one’s life is. But in reality, that’s how it is for most of us. It is far easier to stay strong and focused when we’re happy, fulfilled, stress-free, and well fed. Throw some powerful life challenges into the mix, and it seems reasonable that some observance might shrink away simultaneously.

2) The Adversity Discrepancy

On the flip side, there are certain challenges to living outside of Israel that can possibly strengthen one’s connection and religiosity.

When you are surrounded by people just like you, the tendency is to become complacent. It’s easy. Being one of the Chosen People is a given, and takes no work whatsoever.

But when you find yourself surrounded by hatred, the tendency is often to pull yourself together and learn to love your circumstances even more. I have watched as barely connected Jews stared bravely into the eyes of evil antisemites. They didn’t consider their own wellbeing; they were pushed to stand up for what’s good and right in this world.

Being just a face in the crowd of a bunch of people exactly like yourself, might encourage complacency. Needing to defend your people, may encourage loyalty and pride.

3) Challenge Breeds Awareness

It’s a bit odd. I sometimes miss certain inconveniences of living outside of Israel.

There are two obvious examples of where this comes into play all the time: Kashrut (Jewish dietary laws) and Shabbat observance.

In Israel, and especially Jerusalem, you can meticulously observe both practices while barely breaking a sweat. The society is designed to make them simplistic. Entire grocery stores are filled exclusively with kosher items, and many areas are lined with kosher restaurants. The city shuts down for the Sabbath, and the best way to spend the day is feasting with family and friends.

But not so outside of Israel. You need to work harder to make sure you’re always purchasing the appropriate items. You must look at literally everything you take off the shelf. If there’s no kosher bakery around, or you’re dissatisfied with the selection, you’ll need to learn to make those beautiful Shabbat challahs on your own. Yeah, all of this is a pain… but it promotes awareness and a stronger connection to what you are actually doing.

Another great example is something called an eiruv. According to strict Jewish law, we may not carry anything outside during the Sabbath. In order to get around the rules, we create something called an eiruv (a virtually invisible, and extraordinarily complicated, legal structure). And voila, we carry items like there never was a rule in the first place. In Israel, it’s easy to forget this is even happening, since there seems to be an eiruv everywhere, and someone somewhere is in charge of caring for it. In many places outside of Israel, this is something that may require greater focus.

Sure, these issues can be a pain or an inconvenience. But when we work for something, we tend to have a greater appreciation for it. And further religiosity may ensue.

4) The Opportunity to Shine

Take someone out of their pond and place them elsewhere, and that’s when the opportunity to shine comes up all the time. Here in Israel, I almost never have the chance to explain Judaism to a perfect stranger, something I felt was practically a daily occurrence when I lived elsewhere. And nothing makes your love of your own people grow more than when you know your conversation partner is listening attentively to every word, and yours might be the only explanation they ever hear.

We have a very special responsibility to the world. Every day we must represent our people to the best of our ability. And that responsibility, as daunting as it may be, has a huge impact on how we carry ourselves and conduct our daily lives. Remove us from the world at large, and even though that responsibility is alive and well, it’s quite easy for many to think it’s irrelevant. And without the many watching eyes upon us, it’s simple to cease being our best selves.

5) We Are Unique

It’s very easy to feel faceless in Israel. I am just another one of the thousands and thousands just like me. My contributions are minimal and my knowledge is hardly unique. I’m surrounded by others who know everything I know, and many of them know much, much more.

But place me somewhere else, and now I’m something special and exotic. In Jerusalem, no one ever asks me why I don’t eat milk with meat. Elsewhere, I’m something different. And those differences matter.

We don’t always want to be special. It’s so much easier and more convenient to just do what everyone else around us is doing. Sometimes it’s simpler to just be faceless and to disappear into the crowd. But for many it feels quite nice to be something special. And it affects how we act and feel every day of our lives.

What do you think is the reason for this paradoxical religious shift?

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Posted by jaffeworld in Israel, judaism, religion, 1 comment

The Folly of Religious Coercion

religious coercion

There was a raging debate in Jerusalem a few months ago. One of the hottest new hangout spots is First Station. Not only is it loaded with restaurants and shops, but there are tons of activities all the time, and it’s generally got a great feel to it.

However, in a town loaded with wall-to-wall religious folk, it seemed inevitable that someone would have to poke their nose in and ruin everyone else’s fun. You see, Jerusalem is a city that pretty much stops running once a week. Most bars and restaurants are closed. Buses stop going. A huge portion of the city is observing Shabbat, so street traffic is radically reduced. And places that are jam packed the rest of the week, like the shuk, are ghost towns once Friday night rolls around.

Shabbat and First Station

But not First Station. I’ve walked past it many time on Shabbat to see half the restaurants going strong, and the wonderfully lively and friendly atmosphere continuing on through the seventh day as well. In fact, it seems like First Station is the one place left in the entire city that is still pumping on a Saturday afternoon.

But some people out there can’t sit idly back and let other people enjoy their time.

What’s Your Problem?

I’m not exactly sure what their motivation is. Three guesses: 1) They think it’s inappropriate to have such frivolities and Sabbath violations occurring in the holy city of Jerusalem, in a public and sanctioned manner. 2) It creates a ruckus, and disturbs the peace of their day. 3) They believe that if others are restricted in what they can do, they will ultimately make the decision to accept upon themselves the holy Sabbath day.

Regarding #1, Jerusalem is a diverse city. It is filled with non-religious Jews. It is loaded with non-Jews as well, not even considering the extremely popular and important tourist industry. And whether or not you like to accept it, those elements are essential for making Jerusalem more fun and interesting. Remove it, and all you have is a bunch of synagogues and old buildings.

As far as #2 is concerned, I have never noticed or heard anything from First Station any time other than when walking right in front of it. And when I’ve done so, it was my choice. There are plenty of ways to get from point A to point B. If it bothers you so much to watch other people having a good time in ways different from yours, choose a different path. It’s really that simple.

Religious Coercion is Not Effective

But it’s point #3 that I’m really here to address, a point that disturbs me to no end. Your silly obsession with religious coercion is not effective. If anything, it’s quite counterproductive. In the immortal words of Rabbi Berel Wein, “To date, no one has ever decided to observe Shabbat because someone threw a rock at their car.”

One of the most chilling moments I had in my career as a teacher was one morning during prayer services. As usual, the teachers’ jobs were to “police” the setting. We would be meandering around the room, telling students to stop talking, and insisting they pray. Sometimes things even got heated. You can imagine how inspiring it is, being forced to pray. Nothing brings a teenager closer to God than being yelled at for not praying correctly.

And one morning, as I mindlessly fulfilled my inane role, this thought crossed my mind: If I were brought up this way, I probably wouldn’t have ended up religious.

My Path of Inspiration

My path was one of inspiration, role models, education, and choices. The students at my school were just being told what they had to do. If many ran away screaming, I don’t blame them.

Fact is, religious coercion is and always has been a terrible idea. Even under the “best” circumstances, when the coercion is actually effective and someone continues with their religious practices, what is the end result? Mindless religious robots? Thoughtless beings who do what they do out of fear or habit? Coercion might, sometimes, produce someone who appears to be a follower of the religion. But their practice is likely to be shallow, with an undertone of resentment.

Religious Coercion vs. Choice

In order for someone to truly love what they do, there needs to be an element of choice. Any teacher can tell you, try and tell your students about almost any subject of interest to you, and you’ll get yawns and eye rolls. But if they ask it to you as a question, you may just have the full attention of your entire class.

And shouldn’t our faith be something so amazing we have confidence that others would choose it, with the right education and experiences? Doesn’t religious coercion send a subtle message that you’re not confident in what you do, that maybe you think your faith is flawed?

Religious Coercion and Resentment

The bottom line is, religious coercion does not work. The best it offers is a sad and weak connection to religiosity. But more often than not, it just builds resentment. It makes people angry.

If you want someone to see the world through your point of you, great. Be amazing, do incredible things, and let others choose of their own free will whether or not your lifestyle is right for them.

But stay out of other people’s business.

A Win for First Station

I observe Shabbat every week and I’ve been doing so for over two decades. I think it’s a beautiful thing and I love that it’s a part of my life. In addition, I believe everyone could benefit from having such a day in their lives. I thought this before cell phones were a thing… and now that people can’t stop staring at their little device, I think it so much more. Everyone needs to shut down every once in a while. Everyone needs to learn to communicate properly, to look another person in the eyes.

However, I was ecstatic when I found out First Station would remain open on Shabbat. Why? I was ecstatic because it was a moral victory for those of us who truly believe in freedom of choice. If you don’t want to observe Shabbat, that is your business and your business alone.

If you smoke in places you’re not allowed, or you drive overly aggressively, or you throw trash on the ground wherever you choose, I’m OK with you being pressured to leave my city. I don’t care if you’re religious or not.

Please Stay

But if you’re a decent person, please stay. The more of you the better. Follow your heart. It can lead to a whole lot of great places. Religious coercion will lead to the breaking of spirits and massive feelings of resentment. With absolutely no positive outcome, short of some ill-conceived notion of justice prevailing. But even when you’ve “won”, you’ve weakened our people and our nation. Thus everyone loses.

***

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Posted by jaffeworld in judaism, opinion, religion, 0 comments

Toward a Religious Truth

truth

My third book will be published in just a matter of weeks. This one’s called From Nothing to Confusion: My Religious Odyssey. It’s never been a better time to talk a bit about some serious religious topics. The first one I’d like to address is missionaries.

A Mormon Truth

First, a couple of stories. Way back when in, my Cornell days, we received a knock on the door one Shabbat afternoon. It was a couple of young Mormon girls who came to teach us some facts about the one true religion. The girls were polite and sweet from start to finish of their visit. And it was a delight to have them join us in our humble home.

However, at some point our pleasant conversation needed to come to an end. And it was fairly obvious when that moment came.

We inquired how they knew theirs was the one true religion. Like a couple of programmed bobble heads, they nodded enthusiastically and told us, “Because it’s written in the book.”

OK, not a great answer. Fine. But we pushed further, and questioned how they knew the book spoke of truth. The happy nodders exclaimed, “Because it’s written by the Prophet.”

Alright. We were finally inching toward the one-two punch that would have us moving to Utah the very next day. We wondered how they knew the Prophet was real. And we were told, “Because it’s written in the Book.”

Thus the circle was closed. And our delightful conversation had come to an end. I escorted our new friends to the door, and bid them a lovely and enjoyable afternoon of door knocks and theological rigor.

Ultimately, my vistors were harmless. If not wonderful guests. However, not everyone who knocks on the door is always so peaceful. Not everyone’s intentions are noble or praiseworthy.

A Washington Square Park Truth

I had another experience, early on in my days exploring Judaism, when I attended a yeshiva in Crown Heights for a couple of weeks. On Fridays we would head off to Washington Square Park for an exhilarating afternoon of finding Jewish males to put tefilin on.

The experience was always fun. And always meaningful. However, it’s New York. There’s always a surprise or two lurking behind every corner.

At one point I was accosted by a group. One of the ladies in the group, a young girl wearing large, dangling Star of David earrings, started chatting with me. During our small talk, I discovered that she was from some city in Middle of Nowhere, USA.

I got very excited. It’s one thing to be proud of being Jewish. It’s a whole other world to brazenly show off your love of our people way off in the schticks, in a place where the Jewish population is likely less than one percent.

We talked some more. In the conversation she mentioned the name of her college, which I thought had a curious title. I asked her what type of school it was, and she said, “It’s a theological seminary. I’m a Messianic Jew.”

An Isaiah 53 Truth

So, knowing what I know now, I would have realized the group was Messianic immediately, since the first words spoken by one of them to our crew was, “Have you read Isaiah 53?”

For the uninitiated, these are code words for: I’m a Christian missionary. I believe that everyone alive must believe what I believe. And I’m now about to pull all stops to aggressively try and convert you to my belief system.

And thus began (and concluded) my first exposure to a world I would later become all too familiar with. The world of the missionary. Robotic Christian conversion trolls, sent to all four corners of the world to persuade and argue and flatter their way to your heart. All in the hopes you will come to understand the one truth.

A Religious Truth

Now, I have a love of all religions (or at least all the ones I’ve studied and been exposed to). However, I cannot say the same for all religious practitioners.

I think it’s mandatory to call everyone on their nonsense, even if they’re hiding far behind walls of good intentions or righteousness. But there is a qualitative difference between these two groups I need to address.

The two Mormon girls may have not been ready for the task ahead of them. They weren’t masters of knowledge, supremely capable of dealing with challenging questions. I think some sincere person in a dusty room somewhere in Utah sent these girls out with zero training, hoping the simple folk of the world would see the truth. I bear them no ill will. And I wish them only luck in their journey.

However, the group that approached me in Washington State Park had an agenda. They were trained manipulators, willing to do whatever it takes to get others around them to see their point of view. This could include anything from using sources very out of context to straight up lying.

Present me with facts and information and I will passionately explore them and draw my own conclusions. Provide me with experiences and I will sincerely evaluate them. I will see if and how they could become a part of who I am. And it might be that ultimately I disagree with you. But I will always politely respect you.

Try and manipulate me, and you are nothing to me. I have zero tolerance for lies and bastardizations of the truth. You poorly represent your faith. In fact, you’re an embarrassment to both your religion, and to religious people in general.

Misusing Faith

And just so I’m clear: I do not discriminate in this regard. If someone misuses my faith to justify throwing rocks at a car on the Sabbath, or in any way deceives people so they conform to another’s way of practicing, their dishonesty disgusts me.

So we’re left with a bit of a problem. What’s truth and what’s fiction? Who speaks with us with positive intentions? Who is truly being intellectually honest with us, and who is bending the truth for their own gain, for their own agenda? We should all be so lucky to know at every turn.

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Posted by jaffeworld in judaism, opinion, religion, 0 comments

In a Stranger’s Grave

In a Stranger's Grave

Last year, Jerusalem’s community theater group Theater and Theology put on a remarkable play. The show tackled the issue of how a religion deals with an ever changing world. Off the Derech Dolorosa was not only a pleasure to watch… I’d definitely give it two thumbs as a fantastic play to propose after.

And this year, they’re back to tackle an extremely divisive and potentially painful issue: The retroactive cancellation of Jewish conversions.

The Conversion Crisis

There are some crazy and complex things that happen in Israel’s religious community. Sometimes they’re amusing. Sometimes downright heartbreaking. And sometimes so perplexing, they feel impossible to wrap one’s head around.

In Israel, there are assorted issues surrounding conversion to Judaism that are complex talking points in our community. Small and enormous travesties abound. These issues inspired Miriam Metzinger to tackle them in her play, In a Stranger’s Grave.

“I … was re-reading Sophocles’ Antigone,” Metzinger said, “about Oedpus’ daughter Antigone who was not allowed by the king … to bury one of her brothers because [he] felt this burial would cause a kind of moral pollution. I immediately thought about a story I had read in the newspaper about someone whose body was denied burial … because the conversion was not recognized in Israel … The issues in Antigone … are still … current many centuries later.”

One of the show’s stars, Avital Macales, said, “Before getting to know this play, I had not heard that something like this could happen. I found it quite shocking when I finally heard about it. And I look forward to hearing the scholars speak after each performance and finding out what they think about the matter.”

Shocking Awareness

Personally, I was stunned as well. I’ve been studying Judaism for quite some time now. And despite my many reasons to be wary of the actions of Israel’s Rabbanut, initially I thought the play was addressing either a non-issue, or an extremely obscure topic.

After all, in Jewish law, a Jew never stops being a Jew. Even if one wants to, the DNA sticks to you like super glue. Neither casting off your beliefs nor renouncing your connection to the Jewish people, will have any impact whatsoever. And, of course, when one converts to Judaism, there is no difference. A Jew is a Jew. And once you’re a part of the tribe, there’s no going back. No matter what happens.

In a Stranger’s Grave

Sadly, I was wrong. In a Stranger’s Grave is based on real stories. True events that challenged the lives of real people, with real feelings. Tragedies that hurt people, and caused long-lasting impact.

Macales plays Esther Gottlieb, in her words “a 23-year-old woman who grew up in an Anglo Yeshivish environment in Jerusalem to a loving mother (a convert) and father, and one sister, Chana, with whom she is very close. [They] unfortunately suffered the loss of their father and, six years later, their mother.”

The story centers on the Rabbinic reaction to Esther’s mother’s conversion and the issue of whether or not the conversion can be retroactively invalidated. “The different reactions of the family and community members to the crisis highlight current conflicting values in the Jewish and Israeli world,” according to Yael Valier, the show’s director and the founder of Theater and Theology.

Macales describes Esther as “strong, opinionated, idealistic, and [someone who] looks truth straight in the eye”. Thus she is the perfect character to stare right in the face of a complex issue that can easily be misconstrued as black and white. She’s also a delight for Macales to play, seeing as she pours on the sarcasm, whereas her portrayer offstage likes to “keep all [her] real-life sarcasm bottled up inside”.

A True and Present Danger to Israel and the Jewish people

Valier describes this conversion disaster as “a fraught subject that is reaching crisis proportions in Israel”. But how can it be that something so complex and damaging is simultaneously obscure and ignored? Valier says, “the people affected don’t talk about it because by their very nature, conversion problems are kept quiet.” This topic, and others like it, is a true and present danger to Israel and the Jewish people. “It can [happen], it does [happen], and we should be aware.”

Miriam Metzinger wrote In a Stranger’s Grave to address an issue that needs to be discussed. Yael Valier and Theater and Theology produced In a Stranger’s Grave to make sure the word gets spread. But it’s up to the rest of us–those who care deeply about our country and people–to make sure issues like these are not swept under the rug.

I’ve said it many times before: We could be doing better.

What is Theater and Theology?

There are many community theater companies in Jerusalem. However, this group is different. One of the novelties of the Theater and Theology experience is the speakers. There is a scheduled talk after each performance, a scholar who addresses the play’s subjects. The scholars approach the issues from a number of different perspectives. Some noted speakers include Rabbanit Shani Taragin and Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo.

The fascinating subjects are all meant to get you thinking. They spur conversation and open up doors for discussing topics we’re not always comfortable talking about. All of these fantastic scholars help us delve just a little deeper into subjects we care about immensely; however, we sometimes don’t know exactly how to collect our thoughts and feelings about them.

In a nutshell, Valier says that Theater and Theology “brings fascinating, current angles on philosophical questions to theater goers, and it takes scholars out of the lecture hall and into the theater. For me, that’s heaven.”

You can click here to learn more about Theater and Theology and to buy tickets for In a Stranger’s Grave. And keep your eyes wide open for more interesting productions in the future. Miriam Metzinger has upcoming dramas and comedies in the works. And Jerusalem’s theater community is a hidden gem in Jerusalem, with a lot more to come.

***

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Posted by jaffeworld in Israel, judaism, 0 comments

The Shameful Marriage Industry

Marriage Industry

The smoke has cleared.

And I am now blissfully married to my one true love.

Everything was beautiful and we are working hard every day to have the dream life we’ve both always wanted.

But I can’t walk away from the experience without expressing some deep and painful concerns. The marriage industry is out of control, and there are countless aspects I need to speak out against. In this article I’d like to address just two.

The Rabbanut

For generations, the concept of a rabbinic body’s purpose in this world was to help improve the lives of those around them. Sadly, instead the Rabbanut of Israel has become synonymous with greed and inconvenience.

Everyone in Israel is forced by law to get married through the Rabbanut. The process is basically to “prove” that you are Jewish, single, and that you have fulfilled certain wedding requirements based on Jewish law.

I panicked as I entered the process, knowing full well that my divorce might cause problems. So, I called a handful of friends with similar situations and it seemed one of the recurring themes was people leaving the Rabbanut’s office in tears.

In tears!

Seriously.

The Shameful Rabbanut

Your organization should be ashamed. After generations of service to the Jewish world, selflessly giving to communities in a passionate attempt to make the world a better place, you now have reduced yourselves to aggressive harassment of couples in need of help. You have debased yourselves and the field, all in the name of a pathetic and pushy attempt to hold on to power.

And you charge a crap load of money in the process!

What are some of the “services” the Rabbanut does to earn their paycheck? They look over marriage and divorce documentation to make sure people are Jewish and not currently married. And couples send witnesses to them to testify that they are currently single.

The process is invasive, yet shallow. A five year-old could poke holes in their procedure, yet for whatever reason they’re obnoxious enough to send already stressed couples to the street sobbing uncontrollably.

The Incompetent Rabbanut

A great example of the Rabbanut’s silly incompetence was when I was required to go to the Rabbincal court in order to validate my divorce documentation. The office I needed to go to was in a terribly inconvenient location, with just as inconvenient office hours. My ex-wife had already been married with the same documentation in the same city. So I had to miss a great deal of work in order to be charged a large fee for them to essentially just print out a piece of paper, which I then had to deliver to others myself.

Why? All of these things could have been taken care of in minutes in a world with powerful computers and instant email capability. So why would they need to put me through all that? Why would I need to miss work, waste time, and throw money in the trash during an already busy and stressful time in life?

Greed.

And control.

And probably a hefty amount of incompetence.

Rabbi Revisited

Way back when I wrote about how I don’t like to be called “rabbi” anymore. I didn’t expect to have another reason. These people have turned the role into a joke at best; an embarrassment to the entire Jewish world at worst. I would never wish my name associated with such immorality.

Please, for the love of God, check yourselves. Figure out why you’re doing what you’re doing, and find out whether or not you’re causing more harm than good. And then do everything in your power to give the Rabbanut back its good name.

The Marriage Industry Bubble

I fear the marriage industry is a bubble. Alongside of other unsustainable ridiculousness of our generation, such as universities, I don’t see how the marriage industry could continue like this indefinitely.

The industry preys on the fact that everyone not only feels a religious, cultural, or moral obligation to get married, but they feel there are certain standards that must be met. Women need a certain level of fanciness in their wedding gown (or just need a wedding gown). There must be halls and caterers and photographers and a band and on and on and on.

And the industry responds by charging outrageous prices for every last detail with unimaginable hidden fees. And when the smoke clears, and you think you can’t handle the pressure of everything, what happens? Wedding planners swoop in to save the day! And another fee gets tossed into the pile. (Side note: Our planner was great and I’d recommend him fully and completely.)

The Marriage Industry Aggression

First of all, when those getting married are seeking advice, it is wildly inappropriate to use that as an opportunity to just sell us your services. I felt like every time I posted anything online about my engagement party or wedding, a half dozen people sent me messages aggressively trying to get me to use their band or whatever.

I’m asking for advice. I’m under pressure. And just because I mention a wedding, doesn’t mean you need to swarm like vultures and devour me. My joyous occasion should not be your platform for aggressive marketing.

Marriage Industry Alternatives

Second of all, there are alternatives. Many alternatives. People can elope. Or they can just remain together unmarried indefinitely. And on and on. I fear this is the direction we’re headed if prices keep climbing and the industry keeps everything as fantastically stressful as it has so far.

Do we really want to undermine the institution of marriage for our own greed? Or do we want to do what we can to allow people to become wed in relative peace and harmony, without an additional looming threat of financial ruin?

The wrong choice is bad for everyone.

Choose wisely.

A Quick Shout Out

A quick shout out is in order for those who were shining lights in all this craziness.

The flower shop that gave us petals for our flower girls. When you told me they were free, I didn’t believe you. “Free” was not a word I was used to hearing during this process. It seemed like every time I sneezed, someone handed me a tissue and sent me a bill for $50. People, buy their flowers. They deserve it.

To all the friends and family who helped out or offered to help out, it is beyond appreciated. And to anyone who understood that a bride and groom need a lot of space and as little as possible to add to their stress, you are beautiful. Keep up the good work!

As for the rest of the industry, marriage is not an institution meant to be exploited or undermined. Shame on you.

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Posted by jaffeworld in Israel, judaism, opinion, personal story, religion, 0 comments

To Be a Baal Teshuva Again

baal teshuva

In the Jewish world, I’m what’s called a Baal Teshuva. This literally translates to “Master of Repentance”, and refers to someone who was not brought up in a religious setting, but chose as an adult to take upon himself a religious lifestyle.

Becoming a Baal Teshuva

My process of becoming a Baal Teshuva was long and challenging, filled with ups and downs, and constant philosophical awakenings. And consistent learning and growth.

I remember with such fondness my initial days of learning about Judaism. I was an overjoyed sponge soaking in word after word, experience after experience. It was all new. And it was all fascinating.

I want to tell a story that reflects upon the innocence upon which I went about my search. I became religious along with a group of Jews known as Chabad. More precisely, it was at the home of a wonderful Chabad family in Albany, New York, but the family members were the only Chabad folk there. Everyone else was what’s known as Modern Orthodox.

One thing these two groups had in common was they both disliked some mysterious group called Satmar. The word meant nothing to me. The Modern Orthodox folk apparently disliked Satmar because they were against the State of Israel. Why Chabad didn’t like them seemed less clear to me. It almost sounded like a silly sibling rivalry.

Regardless, I wasn’t brought up to just discount a group of people because someone else said they didn’t like them. And I was determined to see for myself who these people were so I could make my own judgment call.

Finding Satmar

And there I was.

Home for break in New York. Wishing to spend a Shabbat (Sabbath or Shabbos) with Satmar, and not knowing where to begin. I had only two details. Satmar were Chassidic and they were based out of Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Unfortunately, the word “Chassidic” meant very little to me at the time, and the only reference point I had was Chabad, who were also Chassidic. And I assumed similarities.

Very, very incorrectly.

Chabad is known for being very open and welcoming. It has centers all over the world, known either as a Chabad House or a Beit Chabad. Chabad members are extremely well known for accepting all comers into their homes.

Satmar, on the other hand, is very insular. Their members keep to themselves and their community.

But I had no idea.

And there I was, in my kitchen, trying to figure out how I can spend a Shabbat with this group so I could make an educated judgment call.

I picked up the phone book (remember those?) and I looked for either “Satmar House” or “Beit Satmar”. Little did I know, those were not things that have or will ever exist.

The closest I could find was “Satmar Meat and Poultry”.

The Call

So… I called. I took a shot in the dark, and hoped for positive results.

Dopey, naive, and adorable me:

“Hi, my name is David Jaffe. I was hoping that you might be able to assist me. I’m looking to have a Shabbat host home experience with a Satmar family in Williamsburg. Do you know who I can contact to set this up?”

Extended pause…

And then there he was. The owner of Satmar Meat and Poultry, talking to a starry-eyed vegetarian in Staten Island, eking out the next few sentences with a strong Yiddish accent, clearly dumbfounded by what was happening:

“Um… uh… we don’t really have such things in Satmar. Uh… I don’t live in Williamsburg, I live in Boro Park… ehhh…

But if you’d like… you could come to me for Shabbos.”

And that’s how I ended up spending one of the most amazing Shabbats ever with a beautiful Satmar family in Boro Park, Brooklyn.

The Satmar Experience

And what an experience it was!

It felt like they had done this a thousand times before, when in reality it was probably their first and last time. Being kind and welcoming to this odd guest in their home was so very natural, even to the young children who kept offering me food and beverages.

I saw from inside an extremely special community. The prayer services were intense and inspiring. Everyone who noticed a new face came to introduce themselves and welcome me to their synagogue. The family even insisted I stay for an extra night to not risk a late night trip to Staten Island.

 

A Special Time in my Life

This was a very special time in my life. I was a Baal Teshuva, in the throes of discovery. Each day brought new and exciting adventures. And my mind was free to bask in awe at everything I was learning and taking in.

I was the proverbial kid in a candy store. But even better! It was like it was the first candy store I’d ever seen, and everyone kept pointing out the amazing things I was allowed to eat.

And with starry, innocent eyes I kept soaking in the magic, and learning anything anyone was willing to teach me.

 

Yearn to Return

Fast forward two decades, and I’m going through the motions. The times when I learn or experience something shockingly new and amazing are few and far between.

And I miss them. Oh boy, do I miss them.

I miss loving what I see and trying to appreciate everything. I miss trying new experiences with an open, ignorant mind. And I miss the longing for the next new adventure.

Now I just assume they won’t happen anymore.

You only get to be a Baal Teshuva once. But God knows I’d love to do the whole thing over again.

 

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Posted by jaffeworld in judaism, personal story, religion, 2 comments

Apologies to the World

apologies

Teshuva

This is always an interesting time of year for me. The Jewish high holidays are right around the corner. People are speaking all the time about being the best versions of themselves. And there’s never ending talk about teshuva, which loosely translates to repentance.

I find the word “repentance” very off-putting. Not only is it not in most people’s everyday vocabulary, but it has a certain overly religious ring to it. There is nothing inherently religious about apologies. Teshuva is about returning to a previous state. It’s about resetting the situation, taking the errors that have occurred and learning to move past them. It is a fundamental part of the Jewish faith, and an essential part of all quality human interaction.

We all make mistakes. We all hurt other people. Sometimes we do so intentionally, but far more often we either don’t recognize we’ve done it, or we can trick ourselves into thinking we’ve done nothing wrong whatsoever. But with just a little gentle introspection, and none of us will be able to escape the countless times we’ve hurt others in our lives. Very often the people we would least like to harm.

An Odd Tradition

There is a bit of an odd tradition around this time of year that irks me a little. It’s done with very good intentions, but I feel it misses the mark, and removes the depth of the concept of teshuva. People will make blanket statements to many people apologizing if they’ve wronged them in any way, or they’ll do the same kind of thing with scores of people throughout the weeks leading up to Yom Kippur.

Are we all so self unaware that we don’t know when we’ve hurt others, that the only “real” apologies we can offer are for vague actions or events that may or may not have happened?

Bigger and Better Apologies

I propose something far deeper, something that takes a great deal of hard work and introspection. And it also takes digging deep within yourself to find where damage has been done and repairs need to take place.

Grab a pen and paper and start surveying your life. Take a deep look at decades worth of relationships. Look at the good ones along the way. Look at the ones that were really challenging along the way. Start slowly compiling a list of names. Ask yourself questions like you never have before. Did I have a wonderful friendship with someone that went sour? Why’d that happen? Is it something I said or did? Is it possible I pushed someone away from me?

Look at the hurt and pain you’ve caused others throughout the years. Please don’t be naive or arrogant enough to think you haven’t done so. We all hurt people. We all cause pain. That doesn’t mean we’re bad people. It means we open our mouths! Every time we speak we’re risking someone around us feeling hurt. One person’s cute, simple joke is another person’s ruined evening.

Start from your earliest memories and slowly work your way toward the present. Jot down name after name. When you think you’re done, start over. Do it again! Even slower this time. Think just a little bit harder. And get that list as fine tuned as humanly possible.

Finding The Hurt

We are blessed in this generation to have countless ways to hunt people down. Usually it’s as easy as a simple Facebook search. It doesn’t really get much harder than asking a friend of a friend.

Once you find those people, it’s time to pour out the words. It’s time to search the deepest depths of your humility to admit that maybe, just maybe, you had a hand in the damaged relationship. And it’s time to (gasp) say that you’re sorry. Not empty apologies to a group of people with no real substance or meaning. Not a vague shell of an apology to someone for whom you really don’t see any issues.

Only sincere yearning for someone to forgive you for the wrongs you have done.

Apologies: What Happens?

I took exactly this approach a few years back, and it was one of the most meaningful things I have ever done. By the time all of my introspection was complete, my list had about 20-30 people. There were a couple I couldn’t find. And some for whom I couldn’t eke out a response.

But beyond those few anomalies, finding the remaining couple of dozen was one of the most incredible and freeing experiences of my life. There were a few shocking realizations, such as people who turned out weren’t actually upset with me. Misunderstandings abounded. Sometimes things aren’t as they seem. Sometimes not even close. The only way you could ever know is to open up the dialogue.

The second most common response I received was straight-up, unadulterated, thorough forgiveness. The outpouring of love and understanding was so inspiring. It’s worlds easier to forgive than it is to ask for forgiveness. And once you ask, a beautiful process just pours forward.

Reciprocity

But by far the most common response I received from people was a return apology. The willingness to see your own culpability, and to reach out and try and put these life messes behind you, opens up people’s hearts. Introspection is inevitable. And a simple act of contrition turns into so much more than the original intention. Mutual apologies along with forgiveness is the best possible scenario, and it is touching every time it happens.

Obviously we all have different life experiences; however, so long as you interact with other people, mistakes and conflicts are inevitable. As the years progress, the numbers increase. The burden increases as well. And it becomes more and more daunting to think that maybe we should go back and revisit the past. Why can’t we just let it disappear forever? Why? Because it never does. All of our experiences, good or bad, become a part of who we are. What a unique opportunity it is for us to go ahead and flip the switch! We can take the many “bads” that happen over the years and turn them into something truly and unforgettably amazing.

May we have a phenomenal year of powerful connections and even more powerful reconnections.

 

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Posted by jaffeworld in judaism, opinion, 0 comments

The Ability to Know Nothing: A Deep Look at Argument and Disagreement

Argument

Complicated Generation

We’re in a complicated generation.

I listen to podcasts all the time, and I think the most common thread I feel throughout what I’m hearing is that people just don’t know how to argue anymore.

Rules of Argument

In my estimation, there are four rules to a good, old-fashioned argument. Four rules I like to live my life by:

  1. Don’t take a strong stand on an issue unless you’re educated on said issue
  2. All opinions in an argument are valid, as long as they are thoughtful
  3. Never use logic in an emotional argument (and vice versa)
  4. Separate your feelings on the issue at hand from your feelings about the person with whom you are conversing

What Actually Happens?

But what do we actually see, seemingly all day everyday?

People constantly tackle issues based on gut reactions or something they heard one time. They’re not willing to do the leg work to really understand what they’re saying. They say whatever comes to mind and don’t really evaluate their thoughts and opinions. And they make them instant canon.

And they discount others’ opinions. They think of others’ thoughts as irrelevant or biased or stupid or even racist. There’s an assumption that if the opinion is different from their own, it is evil. There is no consideration of the possibility that another person might actually be saying something worth listening to.

Furthermore, I often see these uncomfortable spectacles where one party in a discussion is arguing using logic and facts while the other is using reactions and emotions. This type of discourse never produces positive results and is completely pointless. When data is presented and the other party says “Well, that’s not how I feel“, it’s time to move on from the discussion at hand.

Finally–and this is the part that irks me the most in our generation–we’ve seemingly lost the ability to disagree without hating one another. Why can I not believe something drastically different from you, and not simultaneously respect you, care about you, and maintain a civil, positive, and respectful relationship with you? Why should this impact our friendship?

Did Something Change?

Maybe I’m misinterpreting, but I feel that even since I was a kid, things have changed drastically. People used to engage in intelligent discourse. It could sometimes get heated, but that didn’t mean there was animosity. People were more divorced from the topics and could discuss them without walking away thinking there was reason to be upset, at the other person or in general.

Where did we go wrong?

When did we start closing ourselves off to those who may disagree with us?

Something’s happened over the generations. We have gotten weak. We’ve gotten soft. We run with fear when we hear opinions different from our own, and cower when those opinions are presented alongside facts.

Argument in Jewish Tradition

Jewish tradition is replete with lessons about how to gain knowledge through questioning, engaging discourse, and learning from those different from you.

Three examples:

  1. Pesach (Passover) seders throughout the world are designed to get children to ask questions. Young family members are rewarded handsomely not for listening attentively or blindly accepting parents’ beliefs or ideas, but for using their curious little minds to question to their hearts’ content.
  2. We are taught of a sage (Rabbi Yochanan) who was ill and requested a study partner. Sadly, he had pushed his favorite one (Reish Lakish) away with harsh words. They brought Rabbi Yochanan many study partners, all of whom he rejected. Why? Because they agreed with him on all points and just brought support for those views. Rabbi Yochanan wanted disagreement. He wanted his mind sharpened. He needed the push-pull of intelligent, open, critical discourse to truly understand his own perspective.
  3. And then there is the biggest example. The well-known question and answer from Pirkei Avot (The Chapters of our Fathers). Pirkei Avot asks: Who is wise? The sages then do not tell us to learn from brilliant scholars. They do not tell us to seek others who share similar viewpoints or political leanings. No! The sages answer: He who learns from all people. All people! Thus we learn that if one truly wants to fully develop his mind to the highest level possible, no opinion can be discounted. Every idea must be accessible.

An Aside

-An aside: I know there might be someone out there thinking that Judaism is loaded with dogma and that I’m cherrypicking facts to support my own worldview. Others might be thinking about their time in Jewish schools where their thoughts or opinions were not validated. I sympathize if your experience with Judaism differs from what I am presenting. It doesn’t change the fact that this IS the proper Jewish way of life and the only way I believe we can understand our traditional sources. If others are abusing their authority and treating my religion differently, they are acting shamefully. In my eyes, they do not represent an authentic Jewish perspective.-

The Benefits of Opening Your Mind

This topic is near and dear to my heart for so many reasons. I feel like my ability to listen to other people’s perspectives, and keep myself open to growth and change, is my single greatest quality. I have friends from all walks of life, and we can benefit from each other and care about one another, all differences aside. Furthermore, I can look at any issue, and even if I’ve already formulated an opinion (even a strong one), I’m never closed off to further influence. This attitude has resulted in major transformations in my life. And continues to do so.

In fact, just recently I discovered (to my intense delight) that just about everything I thought I knew about myself was wrong. For three years post-divorce I’ve been surrounding myself with walls to protect myself. And in an instant, I felt the walls come tumbling down around me. I felt everything change, and a feeling of intense satisfaction and enjoyment washed over my whole self.

The ability to know nothing opened me up to growth and change I never thought possible.

And everything’s different now. Everything is better now.

 

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Posted by jaffeworld in judaism, opinion, 1 comment